Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Federal government trying to muzzle the media

THE nation's media giants have slammed Labor's plans to make it unlawful to offend or insult people under the proposed overhaul of discrimination law, warning it could encourage audiences to be unnecessarily thin-skinned and outlets to restrict contentious or complex material.

In a rare united submission, the media companies say that with the exception of the section of the Racial Discrimination Act used against newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt, no existing federal law deems conduct that is simply insulting or offensive to be discrimination.

They argue that satirical material, political commentary and informative programming on matters of historical or religious sensitivity might be offensive or insulting to some but are part of the national conversation that is "essential for fostering robust social and political debate, and therefore to ensuring a healthy democracy".

"Whilst these and similar topics may be offensive or insulting to some viewers, this does not make them discriminatory," the joint submission says. "No other liberal democracy has a human rights or anti-discrimination statute proscribing conduct which merely offends or insults."

The Gillard government is proposing to consolidate five commonwealth anti-discrimination laws into one act to meet an election promise.

The Senate inquiry into the draft Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill, put forward by Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, has received more than 500 submissions, with criticism from a range of corners.

Business groups fear they will face high costs to defend claims, while some of the nation's top legal minds and human rights bodies believe it could set the bar for discrimination too low, potentially undermining free speech.

The conservative state governments of Victoria, NSW and Queensland warn the law will overlap and create conflict with state anti-discrimination laws.

The ACTU has said the laws do not go far enough and should allow punitive damages to be awarded, as they can be in discrimination cases in the US, while the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association has said that exemptions in the laws for "inherent requirements for work" could lead to pregnant workers being forced to stand for a 12-hour shift or climb ladders

Church groups have warned the plan could lead to lawsuits over religious freedom, while charity groups fear being exposed to discrimination claims by unpaid volunteers.

Media companies say in their submission they support the overall objectives of the plan to simplify anti-discrimination legislation, but parts of the exposure draft provide cause for significant concern, including because in defining discrimination the bill appears to use a subjective test of whether someone feels offended or insulted by published and broadcast content.

While SBS was able to successfully defend a 2006 claim under the Racial Discrimination Act that a documentary on the Armenian genocide in the early years of the 20th century was offensive to Turkish people, under the proposed new anti-discrimination laws the outcome would have been "dramatically different".

SBS had demonstrated that academic and historical experts believe the former Ottoman Empire was engaged in genocide.

But under the proposed new law, such matters would hinge on the subjective reaction of the viewer making the complaint, irrespective of its historical accuracy or academic merit. "Such a conclusion would have been both unjust and to the detriment of Australia's commitment to free speech," the submission says.

The submission is another sign of tension between Labor and the media.

ABC chairman and former NSW chief justice Jim Spigelman has already criticised the proposed law. But the new joint media submission is the first public criticism of the government's anti-discrimination plan by other companies, including News Limited (publisher of The Australian), Fairfax Media, SBS, West Australian Newspapers and AAP, as well as radio and television groups.

Media executives have meanwhile also campaigned against the recommendations of the Finkelstein inquiry and the Convergence Review, which have ranged from a new government-funded regulatory body to adjudicate on press behaviour to a new public interest test that could block major media ownership changes.

Late last year, Mr Spigelman warned that the section of the proposed law defining discrimination contained a subjective test of being offended. The new media submission says if this is the case, it could "produce a legal climate in which would-be complainants are encouraged to be unnecessarily thin-skinned and sensitive to offence".

"The introduction of a subjective test could create significant uncertainty for media organisations conducting prepublication review of material," it says.

"The inability of organisations to foresee what standard will be set is likely to have a chilling effect on the publication or broadcast of potentially contentious material. This will most directly affect consumers, whose access to the range of content they are able to read, hear and see may be limited."

On top of this, the proposed law could require media groups "to defend their innocence each time a member of their audience felt insulted or offended" because it put the onus on defendants to prove their innocence. The bill applies a single, simplified test of "unfavourable treatment" for unlawful discrimination; this is defined to include conduct that "offends, humiliates, insults or intimidates". The submission says the words "offends" and "insults" should be cut from the definition of unfavourable conduct.

It also says the general definition of discrimination should have an objective test and specific exceptions for content that is reasonable and in good faith in artistic performances, academic debate, fair and accurate reporting and commentary on matters of public interest. Such measures are in the racial vilification provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act, and in the racial vilification part of the proposed law.

The Sex Discrimination Act includes the term "offended".


Dept keeps parents in the dark on child rape

South Australia's Education Department has told a mother that other parents will not be informed of her son's rape at a country primary school two years ago.

The woman's 11-year-old son was assaulted by an older boy in December 2010.  The older student was subsequently convicted and given a suspended sentence in 2011.  He has since been transferred to a new school.

The victim's mother says she has received an email from the Education Department saying that neither school community will be told of the incident because both of those involved were minors.

She says parents need to know if their children are sharing a classroom with a convicted rapist.  "There would be outrage. I know there would be," she said.

"When children actually do something wrong at school, it might be something quite small, but notes come home.  "Yet my child was raped and no one is told. How does that make sense? I just can't comprehend that at all?"

She says the decision not to inform parents is putting other children at risk.  "We've been through this horrific episode and we just have to keep it a secret," she said.

Premier Jay Weatherill was Education Minister at the time but says the Child Protection Act prevents him from commenting.


Plan for Muslim housing enclave in Sydney suburbs

AN interest-free housing project aimed at the Muslim community and boasting 100 per cent halal housing has sparked a major row, with critics labelling it a discriminatory plan that could lead to a Muslim enclave.

Qartaba Homes' plan offers "100 per cent Halal housing to the growing Muslim community of Australia" in the heart of the northwestern Sydney suburb of Riverstone.

While the company has insisted people from all religious backgrounds are free to take up the offer, it advises that the loans are "100 per cent Halal" and a "chance to escape Riba (interest)" because interest is a sin under Islamic law.

Qartaba Homes director Khurram Jawaid said it was the real estate deal of a lifetime, open to Australians of all faiths and backgrounds, but the state MP for Hawkesbury Ray Williams said the project was divisive.

"I can only imagine the repercussions if a developer were to advertise a new Judeo-Christian housing estate; they would be hung, drawn and quartered," Mr Williams said.


Parents to dig deeper as private school fees soar across Queensland

ANNUAL tuition fees will top $20,000 this year for some Queensland students as school fees soar by up to 10 per cent.

Brisbane Grammar School (BGS) is the first in the state to post an annual tuition fee of more than $20,000, charging an all-inclusive $20,920 for Years 8 to 12 this year. That is 6.5 per cent up on last year.

Year 8 to 12 students at the school also face an $1100 tablet levy and a voluntary building fund donation of $1000.

Parents at some other schools will pay more than $20,000 for Year 12 students once levies, uniforms and textbooks are factored in.

Schools in this category include Brisbane Girls Grammar School, Brisbane Boys' College, The Southport School (TSS) and Anglican Church Grammar School (Churchie).

Churchie parents will pay more than $17,000 just to send their children to prep - known as Reception at the school - when all costs are counted, including a $15,548 tuition fee.

Fees for Year 12 students are at least $20,397, including a tuition fee of $18,272 - up 5.5 per cent on last year.

The school's preparatory - Reception to Year 6 - students have their own gymnasium, teachers are paid at a higher rate than many others across the state, pupils have specialist music and arts programs and co-curricular staff are paid for their expertise, unlike in many other schools.

Churchie headmaster Jonathan Hensman said: "Churchie's educational program is built on a strong tradition and reputation for excellence, offering the highest quality educational experience".

Brian Short, headmaster of BGS, which has consistently topped state academic performance charts, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Parents at Loreto College have been hit with the biggest known fee increase in Queensland of 10 per cent - from $7400 for a first child in 2012 to $8140.

Loreto College principal Cheryl Hamilton said fee increases in recent years had typically been between 6 per cent and 8 per cent, but factors including a freeze in State Government funding levels and information technology development meant they were higher for 2013.

"I encourage any parents with any concerns about the increase to contact me," she said.

Queensland Catholic Dioceses have also released their suggested or mandated fee increases, with Brisbane Catholic Education suggesting a rise of 4 per cent in primary and 3.7 per cent in secondary.

These increases are for systemic schools, which do not include religious institute schools such as Loreto.

Systemic schools in the Cairns Diocese have a mandated 5.5 per cent increase, while parents in the Rockhampton Diocese will pay 4 per cent extra.

Queensland school fees are still substantially below some interstate.

Victoria's Geelong Grammar School will cost parents of Year 12 students more than $32,000 in fees this year.


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